The 2017 British Columbia wildfires, the largest in the province’s history, at that time, will likely loom in the collective memory of cattle producers for years. While the devastating scope of the fires is what many remember about that disastrous summer, ranchers contributed greatly to the firefighting efforts and set important precedents about the role of agriculture in natural disasters.
The fires, which started in early July 2017 and lasted 78 days, swept across large parts of the province, affecting a number of regional districts. “The total of the fires for the year were 1.2 million hectares or a little over three million acres of land,” said Kevin Boon, general manager of the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA). Speaking about the role ranchers played in these wildfires at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s Beef Cattle Conference Boon explained that when evacuation orders came into effect, many ranchers were unwilling to leave their operations and livestock.
In addition to initially clashing with the authorities, the ranchers under evacuation who chose not to leave were put in a difficult position. “You don’t have to evacuate if you stay on your deeded land. However, you can’t get out and get back in, so when the food supplies ran out, when the fuel ran out, they were either forced out or they persevered, so it created a huge problem for both them and for the wildfire fighters.”
One of the main issues that BCCA confronted was animal welfare. “This wasn’t just a forest fire. We lost feed for over 30,000 head of cattle in the area,” said Boon. Given the severity of this situation, BCCA worked to have ranchers declared an essential service by B.C. Wildfire Services in the second week of the fires, allowing them to remain on their land.
An important step in this process was to get the BCCA’s ranch specialist for the AgSafe program into the emergency operations centre at Williams Lake, B.C. Here, the specialist began to work with B.C. Wildfire Services to co-ordinate the movement of ranchers who stayed on their property to fight the fires. “It quickly became apparent that our biggest problems were all just communication,” said Boon.
“If you ever go to B.C. Wildfire Services there’s a map that pinpoints every fire in the province that throughout the year was still burning and active. They ended up developing a system of actually tracking our ranchers, and we used the premise ID as that basis,” he explained. Many of the ranchers in the area who were originally hesitant to register for a premise ID were quick to get on board. “In the area, we had less than 30 per cent registered. Within two days, we had 100 per cent because they saw a way to get a permit to get back into their ranches to do some of the work.”
Using the premise IDs, they were able to map where the ranchers were and communicate with them as the situation continued. Thanks to information from producers, they also mapped where cattle could be found. “When Wildfire Services were considering doing a backburn or doing some Wildfire Services work, they knew who to contact. They knew where to go. They gave us a date to move our cattle out of that area and protect those animals,” said Boon. Ranchers also assisted firefighters with their knowledge of roads, trails and local terrain and conditions.
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With some operations running upwards of 1,000 head across vast ranges, evacuating cattle was generally not feasible. “It was mainly the horses and the small animals that we were able to get out of there. Most of the ranch stock couldn’t be evacuated,” he said. “This was a big part of keeping the ranchers in there, the ability to move them, and we used animal welfare as the ability and the reason for getting them in there.” In many cases, ranchers moved cattle around the fire, and Boon noted that some animals sought refuge in places such as riparian areas. “The cattle turned out to be resilient. They knew where to go.”
Another vital part of BCCA’s work was having haying included as an essential service, part of which had to do with the necessity for feed. “Our government was very supportive and actually came in at a very early stage in the fire. We knew we were going to need feed, and they bought a million dollar’s worth of hay in the surrounding area that supplied us with two weeks’ supply for every rancher coming in,” said Boon. “It brought the price down as well. It took speculators out of the hay market.”
Haying also helped to fight the fires. “Getting that hay off removed fuel for the fire, and we found that agriculture actually was a significant factor in fighting the fire. As soon as we could get the irrigation turned back on, we were able to create fire guards and fire avenues so that we could turn the fire or stop the fire at those. So it really became significant to the Wildfire Services that we were pulling that hay off of there.”
Setting standards for the future
While many expected that thousands of head would be lost in the fires, BCCA’s work and the efforts of many helped to reduce the number of livestock mortalities. Of the breeding stock, “we lost less than 500 head of cows in that time. I think that that is astounding and amazing that we came out of it that lucky,” said Boon. When it comes to the market cattle, though, there is no official number on the mortalities, and many injured animals had to be euthanized.
While the mortalities due to the fire were lower than expected, some cattle were lost due to predators such as wolves. Many other animals strayed far and weren’t accounted for until much later. “We found cattle 100 miles from where they started out, and a lot of them didn’t come in until January, February,” he said. “They were moving into territory that wasn’t typical for cattle. They were trapped. In a lot of cases they were surrounded by fires and didn’t know where to go.”
However, thanks to the hard work of many, the precedents that were set during the fires are already affecting how the province is moving forward. “There were a lot of lessons learned. We certainly hope that we never have to use them again, but already we are seeing a difference,” said Boon. Over the winter, BCCA worked with the provincial government and B.C. Wildfire Services to create new protocol on firefighting as related to the role of agriculture. Communication has been especially important going forward. “We have 35 fires already this year. We’ve been contacted initially… trying to identify how many of our guys were there and get communication out for evacuation.”
BCCA is also helping producers prepare for fires using some of these lessons. “We did a program over the winter because of the special donation that came to us from Imperial Oil, where we did workshops across the province on preparedness and teaching people what they can do on their ranch,” said Boon. One recommendation is to create a map of the key sensitive areas on a property, such as the location of fuel and fertilizer storage and the shutoff valves for gas and propane, then leave the map for firefighters if forced to leave.
Boon also recommended keeping a green area around your ranch and forested land, and he encouraged heavy grazing in spring. “We don’t often talk about the value of overgrazing because we don’t believe in it, but boy, those that overgrazed that pasture right around their house ended up saving their ranch and their house.” He noted that research into the province’s forage supply will assist in preparedness and future firefighting efforts.
Boon is proud of the role that the BCCA played in illustrating the value of ranchers in firefighting, as well as in co-ordination and communication with government officials. “We showed them the value of agriculture for more than just supplying food. We showed them the value of that irrigation, we showed them the value of green space. We protected towns and cities because of what we have,” he said. “Now they’re putting policy in place where they’re working on developing these green spaces around towns to protect them.
“We’re moving forward. It was a tough, tough year for all of us, and we came out the other end looking not bad in the aspect that we didn’t have a loss of life, we kept our losses of livestock to a minimum and we certainly built a lot processes in our community.”